Aspen course primed for World Cup racing
November 23, 2011
ASPEN – Aspen Mountain is ready for its close-up.
Preparations for this weekend’s return of World Cup racing have “gone about as smoothly as ever,” Winternational Chief of Race Jim Hancock proclaimed Wednesday. Such a sentiment is quite a departure from recent years, when crews confronted the full brunt of Mother Nature and were left scrambling to ready the hill in the days and hours before the first competitor stepped into the starting gates.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the course surface was primed, weekend forecasts appeared favorable, and only a few small projects remained – namely adding safety netting and padding in certain spots – Chief of Course Pat Callahan confirmed.
As a result, the members of the crew likely will be spending much of Thanksgiving with their families instead of toiling on the hill.
“Our plan is to have everyone gone in time for football, around noon or so. That’s pretty rare,” Callahan said. “We’re 99 percent there. The snow is in great shape – we easily could’ve raced a week early.”
Hancock added, “The fact that we had such good temps and snowfall early in the month enabled us to get the snow we needed more quickly. In turn, that gave us more time to get our work done. The build-up period was less stressful than normal.
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“I don’t really relax until the races are over, but it’s all systems go. I’m very happy.”
That typically has not been the case.
Crews were riding snowmobiles on dirt little more than a week before the start of 2007’s Winternational. But, in a frustrating and ironic twist, more than 2 feet of snow fell on race day, prompting the postponement of America’s Downhill – the first in Aspen since 1995 and first for women here since 1988. An abbreviated version of the race was held one day later, but a scheduled super G was scrapped.
Snow, hail and more than 50-mph winds wreaked havoc in 2008; sponsor banners draped over the finish line could not withstand the gusts and had to be pulled down. (Crews even had to contend with a loose dog, which, leash in tow, scurried across the course and narrowly missed colliding with a competitor.)
Nine inches of fresh snow fell on Tuesday and Wednesday of race week in November 2010, complicating efforts but ultimately not jeopardizing the races.
“We’ve been put through the ringer and kind of seen it all, but this year certainly has been easier,” said Callahan, who has held his current post since 2007. “I think everyone is more relaxed than they have been in recent years.”
Snow guns fired up Nov. 1 and have been blowing at night for the better part of the past three weeks. The favorable conditions allowed Ajax to accommodate the U.S. Ski Team for two days of training Friday and Saturday.
“It was an amazingly good day,” Callahan said. “Coaches from the team said, ‘Leave it as it is. It’s race-ready.’ The girls had a great time.'”
Crews went back to work on the racing surface Sunday night, churning the snow. The course was watered Tuesday.
“It’s a miserable job – standing there for six hours with snow hoses. Luckily, I’m the guy who stands at the top with the radio and directs people and doesn’t even touch a hose,” Callahan joked.
“We’ve found that just watering the course and grooming it immediately after was better than doing the injection, where you have to shoot water into the snow,” he said. “Here, with the low humidity, [injecting] seems to turn everything to ice. This [process] gives us better conditions. Last year was the first time we did the whole course that way.”
Aspen’s injected course drew criticism from athletes in 2009. The most vocal was three-time World Cup overall champion Lindsey Vonn, who, after skiing out on the first run of the giant slalom, remarked, “My right foot wouldn’t hold anymore. I slid out about four times. … On this pond ice, you have no chance unless you have a sharp edge.”
“It’s not ski racing,” the Vail resident told The Associated Press later that afternoon. “I don’t think it does anyone a service to have it this difficult. It doesn’t look good on TV.”
Hancock said this year’s track – which is slated to host a GS on Saturday and slalom Sunday – will be both firm and fair.
“I was on it a lot today – we want it to be hard and not super slick and icy, and I think it’s in real good shape,” he said. “Because of all the snowmaking there’s more width on Strawpile, which will give the course setters more options. More spaces between the gates and fences is favorable.
“Some of them are going to like it – the ones that do well – and the ones that don’t won’t like it. That’s true whatever the conditions are. Having a course that is fair and holds up well for the whole field. That’s all you can hope for. I think we’ve got that.”